Thursday, 29 December 2016

Fa La La La La, La La La La

I have a song in my head and it goes like "Fa La La La La, La La La La."

Christmas comes at a very opportune time. At the close of the year, when however terrible the year had been, everyone hopes for a better one next year. Now, I have been skeptical of New Year's Eves and all the celebration, but one cannot help being delighted at the Christmas imagery.

Some very clever person elf must have guessed that an obese white man in a red coat from the land of snow will win hearts all over. Everything is festive about the pictures of Santa Claus. Snow falls. Fire burns. Shadows play. Gifts are wrapped. Tinsel shines. You cannot be sad or angry at that!

In Kashmir, I am sitting in the cold waiting for snow. It seems difficult today. The water sometimes freezes in the pipes now. The night temperatures fall so low that it is a miracle that air doesn't freeze and become solid. One cannot venture out without longing for the indoors. The window panes frost and cloud. The outside becomes obscure. The one who is gone is lost from sight.

Yet there is no snow.

The schools are closed now for winter vacations, so the kids have nothing to do. Again. This year, the academic year functioned for 5 months. Everything else too. But worse things happened in this little valley of ours in the remaining months. People were killed with impunity, children were blinded with impunity. The curfew stretched on for four months, the strikes for even longer. Everyone blamed everybody else. The summer and autumn were gone in this frenzy. There is no salvation.

Sometimes I make up the argument in my head, "People are being killed on the streets and you are thinking about this?" This could be anything - from nun chai to baking cakes - trivial things like the colour of pheran. But, I confess, I do think about these things. I have a folder on my computer full of cake recipes which I want to try. Sigh! I must be a horrible person.

In the days of the curfew, when you are too full of anger and grief to do anything, I sit almost paralyzed by the happenings of the world. The war came right to the street corner and brought home what it really means to live in a conflict zone. Yet again. The anger came simmering out and you couldn't be non-partisan anymore. So there were protests and there was a huge push of propaganda. The political cycle was played again, complete with visits by the government of India's officials. A few weeks into the crisis, op-eds started pouring in that India needs to learn from its mistakes in Kashmir. While India learns its lessons and acts upon them, is Kashmir supposed to wait and count her dead? Apparently, murder in Kashmir is no big news in India - indeed some have been openly baying the army for killing more Kashmiris. I am tired of these political shenanigans. Enough already!

2016 leaves us in a lot of tatters. And no one knows how the future will unfold. After 2010, such an uprising was unfathomable. And yet here we are! So many children have been buried without shrines this year. By next year, they will be faint public memories but stark figures in history. So many people have been blinded by pellet guns (which, by the way, are still not banned) and will not regain any vision. Sometime in March I had posted that there is no attack like an attack on personal freedom. That was when people in Paris said they were scared of doing regular things because of the uncertainty left by the Paris attacks of last year. For a brief period the upheaval had turned their world upside down. The same can hardly be said of Kashmir. Uncertainty is the way of our life here. We had just celebrated Eid when, as if by design, life suddenly stopped in Kashmir. Day after day, yet again, we were bombarded by the news of death and blinding of people. At the end of the year, I don't mean to keen over the curfew or the city, and I do not want to sway and make grand predictions or write lessons for the future either. They never come true. If there is anything worth panegyrizing it is that when the government abandoned the people, the people didn't abandon each other. From volunteer kitchens in the hospitals and donations to them, to the little acts like hitching rides or tuition for neighborhood children. We survived.

I feel everyone here is debating the Kashmir issue yet again. Internally, in small meaningful ways. This summer has cast a very long shadow. There have been no "inquiries" about the use of pellet guns and the deaths caused by them this year. No army men have been questioned. There is no justice. Just yesterday, a man narrated how his neighbour's son was arrested and accused of burning bikes and rioting. The son is a student of Class 5.

Conflict erodes life. We have seen that this year. Kashmir is a test case, a lab for politics. Most experiments fail. And failures are fatal - for Kashmiris. We saw that again this year. If there is anything I am sure of right now, it is that the year is coming to an end in two days. Indoors, the woollen namda feels hard and familiar on the cold floor. And there is no snow yet. However, in my slightly frenzied mind I would continue to hope for small things, like small sparks to light big fires, like small steps to complete long journeys. When you are lost in the jungle, there is only one way to reach out, to keep walking the trail. I do not wish curfews or strikes or this conflict to sustain and claim more lives. I do however hope for a stronger voice. People have given their time, money and of course lives to see the end of this conflict. I hope their voices are heard. I hope prayers are answered. Like everyone else on this side of the divide, I want the summer carnivals of bloodshed presided over by some bureaucrats to end and the perpetrators punished. I hope the snow falls, fire burns, tinsel shines and continue to do so. I hope to live free from the trappings of guilt. To live free from the mercy of gun wielding foreigners. To live free. To that, my mind rises in a crescendo of "Fa La La La La, La La La La".

PS: I hope to continue blogging in the next year. 

Friday, 16 December 2016

Somehow We Survived

I will be repeating myself when I say that Srinagar is a cold, cold place. The wind blows little needles in the face and waters the eyes. In my dreamy, detached, ever hopeful existence, Srinagar is so many miles away that the only things that anchor me to reality are the cold and tea. And by tea I mean Nun Chai with its ever comforting warmth like a hug from a worthy friend.

Early this year, I remember telling a friend that this is going to be a good year. We were going on the Boulevard Road and the sun was about to set on a day in the prime of spring. He agreed. Now, we are just moving from a curfew and lock down of five months. Everyone who knows anything about us knows that this is a fragile, fragile situation. Kashmir is like a samovar full of tea, with embers keeping it simmering all the time.

Among the many disappointments we had this year, I will remember with gratitude the sanctuary nun chai afforded me as we spent the summer locked up inside our homes, reading and watching the leaves turn. Outside, the curfews raged, and so many young men were killed. Everyday we mourned for them. Everyday we died a little. Everyday we made tea and thanked God that we are getting by. The leaves faded from green to gold and then left the trees barren; and the skies shifted from blue to gray. The colour of my brew was still pink. Like roses the colour of broken promises.

But somehow we survived. My friends (and sometimes random people one meets by happenstance) from India ask me how did we manage for so many days with no markets open and little money. I have no answer. We just did - with patience and some luck. And lots of resilience. I spent some weeks of the year in Delhi. I had nun chai over there too. A pale, milky brew it came out. Quite out of place. Like the stranger in me. Its flavour lost in the heat of India's plains. There is no decent way to reconcile to the disappointment of a vile cup of tea. I needed to be back home.

As we end this year on a very somber note with the war raging in one part of the world and uncertainty looming over ours, I look at this empty cup of nun chai. The spent dark brown leaves have collected at the base. Someone may stare at the shape to read the tea leaves. Will the coming year lose its promise in the prime of spring too?

This has been a long, long year. The summer never seemed to end and the autumn dragged its feet - its cold, beautiful, scarred feet. I don't want to sound pedantic. On days like these I find heart in the fact, that when everything goes wrong there will be nun chai to fall back to. It is the promise of a very old custom. It shall forever bring me back home.

(PS: Today is “International Tea Day”, and thank you Mr. Ross Chambers for suggesting that I write something about Nun Chai on this day. I must thank the shared joy of nun chai for being the source of many a conversation on social media with strangers and a lot of inspiration. On that note, I had this year before the curfews began a memorable occasion of having nunchai in the huts of very friendly nomads in a meadow tucked somewhere in the mountains of Baramulla. Prepared freshly on a wood fire, the tea was as buttery as salty it was and had a very subtle but distinct aroma of smoke.)

For a recipe of nun chai check this post.



Thursday, 8 December 2016

The Emperor has No Clothes


There was recently a fashion show in India where pellet gun injuries were used as an "effect". To showcase "Kashmiriyat", none the less.

It takes time for such things to go down!

In other words, "an Indian fashion house used injuries caused by Indian forces to Kashmiris as a make up effect to sell expensive clothing".

I can feel the lump in my throat.

India for long has been trying to appropriate Kashmiri culture, but this level of insensitivity is irksome. And frightening. There were simpler times when we had to deal with movies which dealt with Kashmiri stereotypes and Indian directors' fancies of Kashmiri people, like belles in heavy costumes singing in shikaras, to the pretty shepherdess or people who live lives so isolated they cannot exist outside the movies. Now, it has become plain sinister.

This summer, Indian forces indiscriminately shot pellet guns at unarmed people destroying lives and families of victims, and now some random designer thought it appropriate to use the injuries for "effect". Using a form of torture, or a fancy weapon used to blind Kashmiri populace en-masse, to represent Kashmiri culture may be a new low, but somehow fits in the unequal relationship India has with Kashmir. Since India has been hunting Kashmiris, and allowed its laws to do so, for the last 26 years atleast, it is just collecting trophies now. 

A model walking down the ramp with a bandage and a faux wound may look dramatic, but where is the empathy in that? In April when Chetan Bhagat wrote a mindless (and heartless) letter to Kashmiri youth, the imperialist over tones were barely veiled. With this fashion show, the designers have sought to normalize the torture and victimization of Kashmiris. So as if patronizing was not enough, India seeks to trivialize and mock the suffering caused by its armed forces. If I am reading this correctly, is death the new fashion? Death is a part of Spring - Summer collection? I would be amused at how this sounds, had it not been so tragically accurate. Death was a part of the Kashmir's spring and summer this year, and instead of apologizing, or as we keep repeating, empathizing, India has designers making light of it.


It is this culture that allows the unsuspecting Indian to continue with the occupation of Kashmir and churn newer and fancier justifications for it. That the whole culture of Kashmir can be treated as a commodity to be modified and sold as per convenience. In this is a sense of superiority that the military occupation affords the creative minds, where voices unheard cease to exist.

We cannot however ignore the morbidity that the designers chose to imply. By calling pellet guns a part of Kashmiri culture, they have given it the all the necessary justifications an imperialist would like. Had this been done as a protest, it would have implied that India is forcing the pellets on people of Kashmir and thereby brutalising their culture and history. But done otherwise (and with commercial intents), the implication is that "we rule Kashmir with the stick and guns, and that is so ingrained in the discourse that it is an acceptable facet of the populace." The fashion show is a celebration of this gift to Kashmir by India. Perhaps the designers thought the pellet would be the new paisley, just another pattern from Kashmir, no matter  how removed from humanity it may be. And to draw this connection between the motif and the macabre is the 'achievement' of their art? The very idea that the lives of Kashmiris can be so cheap that injuries inflicted by an unpunishable army can be glamorised and weaponry used to blind and maim be celebrated is a major element of this nationalistic pride that people gain by "holding on" to the territory of Kashmir. In the same sense, it is also the cause that lends rationale to calling for a genocide in Kashmir (as done by an official handle of a Govt agency and a journalist with mainstream media, among others).

This is utter disgrace. An affront to humanity and indeed, art. 





Friday, 25 November 2016

Five

Here we are already!

Words after words, cups after cups, another year ends and Rich Autumns is now five years old.



Should we celebrate?



This year was definitely not the happiest in Kashmir. More than 100 days spent under curfew and lockdown consecutively. Countless number of people dead and blinded. We are now all witnesses, this blog included, to what went down in a small valley that tries to keep to its own.

But after so much scarring and loss, Srinagar is still a beautiful city where people still choose to live in hope of a better tomorrow.


Resilience: to stand in the path of lightening
Resilience: to walk when darkness falls at noon
Resilience: to grind yourself fine in the turning mill
Resilience will come to you.

Vakh 90 - Lalla Ded
(from I, Lalla by Ranjit Hoskote)


Thank you, readers, for following along. These are just processions of words and cups of nunchai.

Here is a list of posts from the last year. If you have read more than five of these, I think we can be friends.


Monday, 7 November 2016

Lost Forever

Its a long way to home. Always.

Srinagar. The Bund is a bending road around the Jhelum. Like memory it takes subtle, soft turns. I saw the stranger walk down the Bund in autumn, and my memory from years ago is like it happened yesterday. Perhaps it did.

That promenade around the Jhelum is like a metaphor for Srinagar, fallen from grace.



He appears from below the Chinar trees, the golden leaves' dust on his shoulders. He smiles, but his eyes are hollow.

"Don't lose hope, love" I want to yell. But he doesn't see me. He sees right through me. I can almost feel his gaze. Piercing, like his eyes. It warms my heart.

As we walk together, I can smell the leaves in autumn - with their strong dry fragrance, and his cologne. We walk past the Goodfellas cafe, the chairs in the lawn are hunched. At another restaurant, the sign says open, but the door is closed. The coffee shops are all closed in the city. A few men sit in the park opposite on the benches around the trees. There is no one else.  "What do you love about autumn so much?" he asks.

 We walked in silence for a while. The question hung in the air. I had once questioned what lovers in Srinagar did in winters, when it is all hard and cold. I think I know now. They wilt. The stranger's hollow eyes are an answer enough. His dream seems to be deserting him - it isn't fair for anyone to be so beautiful and without dreams. But Life is too busy to take such questions, and we must pass this promenade of memory and into the maze of the city. The cacophony of the city doesn't reach here. We seem to have found a corner of the place, most people have forgotten. Two men were digging the side of the road. What if they found treasure hidden at the bottom of the city?

In this place bereft of all romance the sun sets early these days. It rises late. The sunset is very golden behind a grey sky. It is the only thing that makes sense, the clockwork of nature. We were walking away from the sun, and our  shadows were long and touching as we got off the promenade near the Post Office. Even if I wrote him a letter, I would not have been able to post it. This year all the love letters were delayed. Love was put on hold, momentarily, and lost forever.

It was getting dark and the markets crowded. Near the unfinished construction barrier at the Fountain, the hawkers and the cars were adjusting themselves to the pedestrians.

An old man calls from his chestnut cart saying this is the last of this year's season.

"Its like short lived romance, where everything is possible." I say, "It also doesn't last."

Sunday, 30 October 2016

Autumn Spectacle

It is fun to do such a post every now and then.






































Thursday, 27 October 2016

Like Snow in Summers



On July 8, 2016 Indian Army killed Burhan Wani, a militant commander of a group demanding freedom of Kashmir from India. The aftermath has been a mass uprising in Kashmir. People have been protesting and the government declared curfew. Till 15th August, India’s Independence Day, there had been no let up in the curfew and 38 people had died.

When his phone didn’t connect after repeated attempts, he knew the phones had been blocked. He could go on for days without talking to his parents, but at times like this it seemed urgent. Srinagar was so far away – and everything around him was so removed from home. It was like thinking about spring in autumn, or remembering snow in summers.

“Hello. Greetings”
“Greetings, son” said a sombre voice at the other end. His father sounded distant and slower. 
That was the last conversation he had with his father four days ago. 

***

He was vaguely aware of the music before he was awakened by it. Nabeel woke up early. Too early for a holiday. And with great annoyance. He waited in the bed, eyes still closed. Wishing sleep would come again. Stretching his toes. Trying to think of something other than the song blaring from the loudspeaker. A particularly sappy one - one he had never liked.

India's Independence Day announced itself on a hundred unread Whatsapp messages from his office group. He ignored. Trying to go back to sleep. Trying hard not curse. He couldn't.

There seemed to be no escape for him. Shielding his eyes against the sun, he looked outside the window to see who was playing these songs, but the sound seemed to be coming from nowhere in particular. All he could see was the abandoned half-constructed building next to his. Then Lata Mangeshkar sang about martyrs.

Yes, what about them? He wanted to yell at whosoever was playing these songs.

He gave up. He rubbed his eyes and looked around. He decided to make tea, but that would mean going downstairs to the dingy little grocery store to buy milk. That would mean meeting people. That may also mean attending the flag hoisting.

He had overheard some kids talk about the flag hoisting in the ‘society’ – one of the things people in Delhi did. He didn’t know where they would do it – but by instinct, and habit, he wanted no part of it. Outside a group of women was chatting loudly over the music – he could hear them through the door. He turned away – tea could wait.

He had never held a flag in his hand.

Four days ago, his father had called to tell him to stay inside his room and not to go outside on 15th August.

It was still 10 o’ clock. The music was still playing.

He checked his Facebook. More curfews in Kashmir, more people dead in police action, more protests. There were no notifications, as expected. He hadn’t posted anything in weeks. The last post was when 12 boys had died. Now, social media informed him, it was more than 30. Three of them from his neighbourhood. He wasn’t sure what they were doing, but he one knew of them – the one who sneaked out at night with him to smoke in the darkness.

He took a bottle of water and rinsed his mouth.

He had returned to Delhi on 10 July having spending his Eid holidays at home in early July. Srinagar was under curfew then. He had left his home before dawn, in the darkness, to reach the airport. All along the way army men patrolled empty roads and stray dogs barked at the passing car. No movement was allowed during daytime. It was almost a month since his return; Srinagar was still under curfew. He knew his father hadn’t been to work in a month. He wondered if he was still buying the medicines. His diabetes medicine was expensive, and often he would skip a pill in between intentionally. Was he taking it regularly? Now that it hit him, there was no way to know.

Internet was not working. Phones were not working either.

So he waited and felt the whirring of the fan overhead. He pulled his legs up and tried to concentrate on the soft snoring of his roommates rather than the songs from outside. Noida was a swarm of high and low rise buildings perennially covered in dust from some construction. This city was still being built. It was always under construction. Every morning an army of workers would converge to the skeletal structures and disperse. In the evening they would emerge again. Nabeel lived with three other boys in one newly let out apartment building, with no furnishing and erratic water supply. The other three were not from Kashmir, and Nabeel had met them when over time moving from place to place, job to job he had finally landed there. Their agreement to stay together had somehow worked thus far – the fair Kashmiri who didn’t speak much – even though they worked at different places and had no mutual friends anymore.

What about the martyrs? They were kids, weren’t they? The next day’s newspapers would carry the death toll at 38 people, most of them of Nabeel’s age and younger. Twenty five years. Killed by an army operating within its laws. The singer extolled him to recall and weep over the deaths. Yes, he would. His friend had multiple injuries from the pellet gun which was the government’s weapon of choice against the protesters. It sprays small balls of lead at no particular target. He had been shot from a fatally close range.

Did they find any cigarettes on him then? Cheap Four Square brand. Did his mother come to know about his smoking after his death? There was no way to know the answer to life’s unending little mysteries. How did he feel now? What did he see before dying? What did he say? Was there anyone around him?

He must save his memory. He must not forget him.

This year had been particularly bad. He had read with a tremble in his spine how some CRPF guy had need put needles in the eyes of a five year old. Five, he could not get over the ages of these people. They were either too young or about his age. Was that an age to die? What if he was in Kashmir? Would he be dead too? Had he cheated death by coming here?

He looked away from his thoughts. There was a cockroach in the sink trying to climb its wall. The women were still outside the door. Bracing himself he went out in his t-shirt and shorts. The women saw him and smiled at him. He looked down and hurried away. They continued talking. The grocer’s was at the ground floor. There was a small crowd of children asking for things and women in long dresses chatting while waiting. He put the change on the glass-top and asked for a packet of milk. It appeared; he snatched it and tore away to his apartment.

The boys had arranged for a cook to come and cook meals for them. But today being Independence Day, he had taken the day off. He was planning to his wife and kids to India Gate. That was two days off in a row; yesterday had been Sunday. That meant there was nothing to eat in the apartment. In the afternoon, the other boys had already made plans.
“Going out?” his flatmate Mohit asked him.
“Not really. Are you?”
“Yes. See you later.” And with a strong whiff of deodorant Mohit was gone.

Later in the evening and not knowing what to do Nabeel pushed himself to go to the mall to get some coffee and to get away from his apartment. He realised that it was a mistake as soon as he reached. It was loud and noisy like a child’s birthday party except that the guests paid for everything and there were no gifts. At each entrance of the mall, there was a huge and a gaudy decoration of paper flames in the three colours of the Indian flag: orange, white and green. The place was decked with buntings in the three colours. His flatmates had brought a bunch of three balloons last night – green, white and orange. Nabeel had accidently burst the orange one, and it hung, spent and useless with the thread. The food court was on the top of the mall and as he made his way through the escalators, the dazzling lights of shops caught his eyes. There were mannequins dressed in green, white and orange, display screens which blasted the three colours and offered special discounts, a counter was even selling ice cream in the three colours. People were wearing lapel pins in the shape of the Indian flag and some had small streaks of the colours in their hair. A woman outside the mall had offered him a lapel pin too, and was surprised when he had refused.

He ordered his coffee at the counter. There were three people in front of him with large and elaborate orders. Clearly they had come with a group. The boys were celebrating Independence Day by wearing a kurta over jeans.

“One latte, please.”

He tendered the exact change and waited for his order.

There were not many tables vacant, but he found one at the back. In a distant corner, away from the centre of the floor where families were having a picnic of South Indian food and young couples were sipping cold coffee or eating sundaes with plastic spoons. He watched as he sipped the coffee. The people of the free world were enjoying their history.

Now, he hadn’t spoken to his mother in three days as the government had blocked the phones in Kashmir. He had heard about Burhan Wani, the killed militant, before he died. He thought Burhan was exceedingly good looking, and that was the first thing Nabeel mourned when he heard about his death. Some policeman had clicked a ghastly picture of his fair face after death. And then the curfews had come. He had secretly counted the number of people killed, but then lost count at about twenty two.

He felt his eyelids droop. He sipped coffee.

“Do you have money? Should I send some?” he had wanted to ask his father but the question choked his voice. His father would have never accepted it.

He knew his father was relieved that Nabeel was in Delhi, away from Kashmir and Nabeel resented that. His office was a small networking company and Nabeel was still a novice at the job. He had joined it after much prodding by a friend who worked there for sometime before moving to Dubai. His parents hoped Nabeel would do the same. Nabeel wanted to be back in Kashmir; with his friends at Khayam Street dining on barbecue meat as they used to every month with their savings. Now his friends had some meager jobs collecting data for a government agency and Nabeel was in Delhi.

The next day when he went to office the people were still talking about the long weekend – the parties and the picnics. He had spent the long weekend curled up in a corner reading Ernest Hemmingway and the angry social media messages. He had not had any dinner for two days and skipped lunches for tea. The girl in the next cubicle was eating something out of a box. Nabeel looked over and she smiled at him, ashamed to have been caught. Prachi was an affable young girl who loved eating more than anything else.

Then she rose above the cubicle wall, “How was your weekend?”

“Miserable. I have not eaten in two days” Nabeel confided in her. He realised he hadn’t also spoken to anyone in two days, but that he didn’t tell Prachi.

“Really? Here,” she offered him the box.

“No, thanks. I just had breakfast outside. How was your weekend?”

“Awesome.” And then without warning or invitation she launched into the details of her weekend trip to the cinema, the movie she saw, her saunters in the new giant mall, and how they had wished to go to Chandigarh for some reason but weren’t able to.

“Hmm.”

“How are things in Kashmir? I heard on the news there is some trouble.”

“Not really good. A lot of people have died.”

“Oh, shit!”

***

“Did you go out today? Were the markets open?” he asked his father on the phone.
“No, I didn’t. I don’t know.” 
His father had not stepped out of his house even once in the last month. There had been no let up in the curfew since. 
There was silence on the line as both considered what to speak next.

Monday, 17 October 2016

A Requiem


Its been 101 days since the last bus plied in Kashmir, ferrying people still in Eid festivity to their homes. How much can memory serve?

It was still summer then and Ramazan had just ended. When the curfews began, all life disappeared. Overnight Kashmir was at a sort of war – with India, make no mistake. People protested, the Indian army killed. You can use any verb that floats your boat – retaliated, killed in self defence, killed in extreme conditions, blah, blah.

This may sound a bit extreme to you, so let me bring in the autumn here. The chinars have just started to shade – a little brown at this time but mostly green.

So, summers were gone in a whirl of protests and chaos. But, overtime, we have learnt the art of survival in this chaos. Remember the floods? We lived through those with  massive civil cooperation. Kashmiris all over the world sent in aid and people organized camps for distribution. The government was nowhere to be seen, at least initially. Civilians rowed boats through the waters to rescue trapped people and deliver food to those who didn’t move out.

This time too people were where they were needed. In hospitals. As volunteers. Assisting the medical staff in relief operations. A person donated a five lakh rupees which saved on his son’s wedding by having a simple ceremony to a hospital. Quintals of meat were donated to SMHS hospital on Eid.

There is some sadistic pleasure derivable from the suffering in Kashmir. This was very apparent in the last 100 days. Many blamed the victims. “Why are they pelting stones?” “Why are people out in a curfew?” “If you throw stones, don’t you deserve to be fired at?” Some gentleman also compared stones and bullets, saying that the stones were hurled with an aim to kill and the bullet was fired in self defense and to deter. People who have never lived more than a day (if at all that too) under curfew argued how Kashmiris should live under a curfew – peacefully, without raising a voice. Safe to preach from a distance? Easy to suppress a voice that has no force? We were lectured by a minister from India what being a Kashmiri means and how we should behave in general. Why must we not protest, I ask? There is nothing peaceful about a curfew. Phones and internet were blocked, to a point that phone companies wulled over closing offices in Kashmir. For India's populist media this is a routine exercise. Their failure to understand that Kashmiris have been demanding an end to a brutal, cruel conflict was showcased again and again. Painfully. In the initial days, injured kept pouring in. Thousands were injured by pellet fire. Hundreds lost their eyes to it. Even the dead were attacked. Funerals were tear gassed and people were not allowed to shoulder coffins.

Briefly the army was called in again. And then taken out. Thousands of people were arrested and are still being arrested, every night. Their future is uncertain.The state creates its own demons and seeks redemption.

But the chinars, are slowly roasting their hues to rouge. The gardens are filled with the fallen leaves. Like gold.

As if in an answer to itself the government killed a 12 year old last week. In July, the CRPF personnel pierced the eyes of a five year old boy. I don't know where to place this grief. Again curfew was imposed, and the empire placated.  At what cost? The continuous lock down has meant losses in education, business and so, so many opportunities. The grounds of Kashmir University are largely empty. And yet there is not a squeak from anywhere.

Of course, some people were very keen on sounding the trumpets of war. In Delhi, I am sure, they must have sounded musical, but in Srinagar they sounded dangerous and sardonic. News channels made a full circus of it and if there was a spark they were keen to turn it into a flame. A Whatsapp group of which I am a member had a person from New Delhi proclaim something like “WAR…WAR…WAR…” as if declaring war on Pakistan was the only way left to save his sanity. There was no mention by the gentleman of the Kashmiris killed by the Indian army. Another Indian friend (and more who know me only through this blog) sent a “stay safe” message. In all the mess, that curfew was still not lifted from Kashmir was forgotten. Conveniently.

The city is full of the aroma of roasting chestnuts. The fragrance wafts under the blossoming chinars on the Residency Road. There are no dull moments.

The last hundred days also brought out the essence of life we lead. There is a chasm that India and her people haven’t quite crossed to reach us yet. On this side of the Pir Panjal, she somehow ceases to exist. And as she considers her force again and again to enter, she fails again and again. So has been our story, ever. People don’t give up their cherished desires and aspirations for nothing – howsoever romantic they may sound to others, especially if they are any bit romantic. The much vilified “youth of Kashmir” does not, and cannot, exist in a political vacuum. Denial and force haven’t gotten any results thus far. And the autumn is fading fast.
(c) @zikrejaana. Used with permission

To read more about the 2016 uprising, follow this link.

Monday, 10 October 2016

Does it Ever Go Away?

I had bad news for breakfast. The 12 year old kid who was in coma after being hit by pellets, died. He studied in New Bonvivant English School and his roll number was 29.

The curfews and the unbearable sadness of being a Kashmiri I can take; the despair I cannot. Even sleep is an alien now. When I cannot sleep or read, I watch movies. I reached for an old hard drive and watched the movie “Rabbit Hole”. Yet again.

There may be spoilers in the following paras, naturally.

Rabbit Hole is a very personal account of a couple's dealing with the loss of their child. It is a slow progression of events - mundane, daily life occurrences, nothing dramatic - which brings forth the fault lines left behind by a personal tragedy. A tragedy for which no parent prepares.

Becca, the protagonist, is subdued - as indeed anyone mother would be after the death of her child. Danny was just four years old. Slowly, as the movie progresses she comes to term with her loss. She meets Jason, the high school kid who was driving the car that killed her son. It was an accident, brought on by the dog that suddenly ran out of the gate followed by Danny. Becca and her husband do not blame Jason, having accepted it as an accident. Becca’s brother Arthur had died when he was thirty of a heroin overdose. This creates a parallel which Becca detests – her innocent child who was killed in an accident and her mother’s son who at thirty died of drug abuse. Of the two mothers, who is the more pained?

When the toys of little Danny are all piled up in a corner, Becca asks her mother does the grief ever go away. No, her mother replies, it doesn’t go away.

It was at this moment that the question arose and framed itself in reference of Kashmir. Day after day, in the last sixty days, and in the past few years we have come across pictures of mothers in Kashmir wailing at the death of their children. India’s fancy weaponry has claimed the lives of many, many children in Kashmir. In fact, this immediately takes me back to the 90s, to the old black and white newspapers where white shrouds used to be stark against a forever clouded sky.  Does this grief ever go away? Is it possible to move on and not blame – like Becca and Jason?

Someone once told me those who are gone are gone. The ones that are left behind will forever carry the cross: the kids those are maimed and blinded. The fair faces that are scared forever. The ones who will live with their injuries forever. It will be their parents who will suffer through this every day. For most, doctors say that the injuries will have a lasting impact and some will never be able to see again. While it is not settled what will happen next, Mehbooba Mufti, on her visit to New Delhi, audaciously asked the young girl who lost her eyes and face to pellet guns if she was angry with her. Photojournalist Zuhaib who lost one of his eyes to pellet fire broke down in a video interview asking what he had done to deserve this.

In their powerfully detailed book on Kunanposhpora, the writers say that the purpose of reopening the case is to keep the struggle for justice alive. If they don’t protest, the army men will repeat the same again and again. Someone has to stand for justice. In acknowledging the struggle of Kashmiri people the book concludes with the powerful line, “Remembrance is ours”. This is a very potent construct for the Kashmir context. Faced with a structure that aims to blow the public discourse in just one direction that suits the state reopening and re-examining cases like Kunan-Poshpora is a struggle in itself. The same can be said of the thousands of inquiries which the state started and forgot about in Kashmir. I am not sure if anyone keeps a track. Who wants to sit as an accountant on the dusty books of injustice? But there are those who have no other option. Parveena Ahanger whose son was taken by the Army in 1990 (and was 'disappeared') and who formed the Association of Parents of Disappeared Persons still cries at each retelling of her tragedy. Its been 26 years – she hasn’t quit fighting. Neither have other members of her association.

The bridge over memory in Kashmir is a short one. Everyday is a grim reminder of what could not be forgotten in the first place. Junaid was 12 years old, standing outside the gate of his house when the Indian army murdered him. In 2010, Tufail Mattoo was going to tuition when  CRPF fired a tear gas shell which hit him on the head. He died on spot.

For the rest of us, we will pick up pieces of life and continue, till the next wave crashes on the store and all wounds are opened up. Eventually. No one accounts for the loss of the living. The reluctance and political lethargy of the India and Pakistan continue to bring more misery and difficulties for us, the people of Kashmir. There seems to be no end to this!

In the end we are left with poetry and the romance of autumn, the thrill of the chinar and the enchantment of hope in an awfully sad world. That is Kashmir, and no, it never goes away. It becomes manageable. As Becca’s mother explains it, "like a brick in your pocket. You carry it around. You even forget it for a while. But then you reach in for whatever reason, and there it is."




(Pic: Screenshot from the movie "Rabbit Hole")

Sunday, 2 October 2016

The Walnut Picker

There is no moral to this story. There is no special import either. It’s a record of fifteen minutes of an afternoon in autumn in Srinagar. Autumn is still young and the walnut tree in the neighbour’s garden has thick clusters of dark green leaves yet. It stands alone among a few poplars and thorny bushes.

Through the branches I could not see his face. But he was young and slender. He wore faded black jersey which said something on the back in yellow and grey pajamas.

I don’t know who he was, or how he came to be in our neighbour’s garden, but his being there was clearly no secret. If I heard him, the neighbor’s must have too, and since no one objected, I assumed he was not a thief.

Walnut trees are tall, sturdy and tough to climb. He made no attempt to climb it. The tree stood tall above him and he squinted as he looked at the high branches where walnuts grew: brown at this time of the year.

He was clearly enjoying the warm afternoon, and the aroma of old leaves in autumn. He walked leisurely on the fallen leaves listening to their soft rustle. He picked a stick and cleared his way among the bushes, looking for any fallen walnuts yet unpicked. There were none.

He walked a few steps away from the tree. Looked at the hanging walnuts near the top of the tree where they hung like ear rings of the sky and paused. He held his baton in his left hand and took a firm aim.

The cane whooshed as it flew upward towards the sky. It hit the branches of the walnut tree but missed his mark.

He picked it up again and twirled it a few times and threw it at the walnuts again. And again. The third time he threw it, the stick did not come down. It got tangled in the tree. But it hit the brown walnuts and with a tap they fell down.

Again walking as if the world could wait for him, he roamed around the tree turning over the leaves to find the fallen walnuts. He put them in his pocket and looked at the tree again.

He snapped his stick into two: easily, as if it were a twig in his hands, and aimed at the tree again. This time he aimed higher but the cane flew over the tree and landed on the other side.

He felt the walnuts in his pocket, glanced at the tree and walked away.



Thursday, 22 September 2016

The First Day of Autumn



This is the first day of autumn. The autumnal equinox occurs today.

 
I have too many questions on my mind. This is one of them. When do we write off a city?

When the floods came in 2014, there was a certain amount of despair in Srinagar. A certain amount of gloominess that comes only from watching ruins. Large parts of the city were deserted. People used to sit outside ruined homes, trying to salvage whatever little could be saved. Mostly Srinagar stared blankly into the void and the void stared back at the city.

Autumn brings in the chaos in our lives. This is nature’s Instagram account where everything is sepia toned and shaded. It is not very cold yet, but we are heading towards that.

Autumn may also bring in war in Kashmir, at least, if you believe a lot of Indian news channels. The naiveté surprises me, thought the rhetoric doesn’t. For many of the war mongers, it will be an excursion – listening to tales of bravado which they can pass on to generations and brag about for years. As much of things to do with Kashmir, it will not effect them. It will not be fought on their streets, among their people.

Before we realize time the chinars will be covered in red and gold leaves. I am waiting for that. In the barren city of Srinagar, it will be quite a show. I doubt if the people have given up yet.  It will be dishonest to say that this year has been just difficult, it has been devastating. There has been a war, and all humanity murdered. I just completed Ernest Hemingway’s “Farewell to Arms”. For Hemingway, war is an occupation where humanity survives only on the hope of its end. And this is emblematic of Kashmir today – we are hoping for one war to end before they wage another. I doubt the soldiers on either side want to fight a war, but it will be imposed on them just like on us, if the powers that be decide so.

There has been a complete shutdown for almost three months now. Almost all of it under curfew imposed by the government. The government is on the other side of the fence; they are not from among us and I have no good words to say about it. I, like everyone on this side of the fence, want people to not be arbitrarily killed. 86 people have died in this summer. The whole city is a war front which the media does not see and show. People, locked up in their homes, have given up work, money and opportunity to survive this war and see the end of the conflict. Enough, I hear my sighs whisper. Enough of the summers of bloodshed.

When the floods subsided, and the city rose from the ruins like a person lost in the sudden brightness of the day, there was much loss to wail over. On a bright day of that autumn two years ago, I walked to Amira Kadal Bridge. It was few days to Eid that year, and the city was, much like this year, barren. Piles of mud were being thrown out of shops, all stocks had turned to mush in the flood waters and the floors of many shops had cracked. The shopkeepers looked around with hollow eyed desperation. On the bridge, there was a small mob of people gathered around a hand cart. I wondered what the hawker was selling. A man held out a watch, a simple dial with a plastic strap. Its face slightly dirtied by flood, but ticking. The times were still changing, as they always do.

I, like everyone else, don’t know what will happen next – and I will not speculate about the future. Will we be caught in a senseless war between India and Pakistan on our territory? Or will be be occupied by autumn’s revelry? We have had enough of both India and Pakistan in our homes. I wish the unwelcome guests go back and cease the war among us. There is no dignified argument for war, but there is every possibility in this autumn – war or otherwise.

This time, more than ever, I am waiting for the chinars to change hues. For the clocks to tick a little bit more.

Lets not write off Srinagar just yet. Not yet.

Sunday, 4 September 2016

Another Postcard from Srinagar

Yesterday, I went to the shrine of Ghousul Azam Dastgeer at Khanyar.

Khanyar looks like a ghost town. The roads were completely deserted as if the residents had fled somewhere else.

A few boys sat on the footpaths, talking among themselves. A policeman was eating an apple from a cart. I was scared someone will throw a stone at me, no one did. I was scared someone may shoot a bullet or pellets, no one did that either.

At Khayam I saw a few cars and bikes pass by. Then as you go down the Nowpora bridge, there are only Indian armymen and a few stray dogs around the dustbins and nothing much else. The CRPF men looked bored carrying bamboo frames and glass shields. I always wonder what they talk about among themselves - about the people they have left back at home, or the ones they shoot to kill, or the people left behind by the ones the kill. A CRPF man shuffled his feet, another adjusted his paunch on the shield. A man sitting outside his house selling petrol in a Fanta bottle looked at me. (Petrol pumps open only at six on some days when the rest of the bazaars open.)

Everyone stared at the cars that passed by, trying to judge why would that person be out at this hour. We are only a short distant away from death.

At Shiraz Chowk, there is a thin razor wire separating this side of the city from that side. There is another razor wire a few meters away before the turn for Nauhatta. A CRPF man was playing with his baton. (If you have never been in the city, this all may sound very confusing. But if you have, you'd know this is at a distance of hardly five minutes on foot). There was only a  small company of CRPF men stationed over there.

A beggar sat behind the archways of the shrine gate and a man on the raised platform outside the shrine.

The door of the shrine was locked and an iron gate pulled across. A hundred threads were knotted to its bars - a hundred wishes yet unanswered.

The man sitting outside told me that that there have been no prayers at the shrine and the adjacent mosque for more than a month. Almost a month an old man sitting there had said that the shrine was closed because the police and CRPF used to enter the shrine chasing the boys.

Its been closed since.

Returning back, I saw an old man riding a cycle with his grandson sitting on the crossbar. He was perhaps out to take the little one for a ride.

Later, on in a different part of the city I saw huge buses moving about with tin sheets tied to the windows. More policemen perhaps. The city is trapped in razor wire coils manned by CRPF and police. Double lane roads have been converted to single lanes for no apparent reason. Traffic policemen are busy, fining bikers for violations (or otherwise, I have no idea).

There are no traffic jams anymore in the city except at six when the markets open. The bazaar opens at six, shortly before the maghrib prayers and close down soon after the prayers. By nine, the city is shut again. They lock everything and take the keys, uncertain what tomorrow may bring. You know, I so want to tell you how the sun shines these days in the afternoon when its bright and warm, and how cool the shadows are, how the leaves rustle as the breeze comes up in the evening - but I know that in times of war the skies are red at night. Later I came to now that some boys had been arrested and many miles away a twenty year old had been killed.


When in 2012 the shrine was burnt people used to come outside its still standing walls and pray. The new structure was almost complete now and redone to resemble the old one from my childhood where I used to visit with my grandmother.

I tried to imagine all the prayers locked up behind the door of the shrine. The weeping and wailing women who used to pray with such resignation. And now me, a lone figure standing outside the doors I had never thought would be turned on me.

But I still prayed because faith transcends closed doors. And because my hope for this city is eternal. Beyond the endless barricades, beyond the garrisons and guns, Srinagar is still a beautiful city and I am still in love with it. One day the doors of the shrine shall finally be opened and we will return to untie the knots from the iron bars. One by one.


Wednesday, 24 August 2016

To the Voice of Falling Leaves

Today brought in a very definitive image. The BSF moved into SP College in Srinagar

Kashmir has been under curfew since after Eid-ul-Fitr (Eid was on 6 July, curfew started on 9 July). So, the last time children went to school was during Ramazan. That was when the universities and colleges held their last classes, and that was also when offices were open. Since then we have been under curfew. Holidays have ended. Tourists have packed their bags and left. The tourist reception center looks out of place, 90s like. College students returning home for Eid from India, have returned back to college. But Kashmir has not had a day of business since. 

People in the free world usually have no idea what a curfew feels like. But that is beside the point here. I return to the image of army moving into a college campus and BSF being brought back into Srinagar. We live in extraordinary times. People love and hate simultaneously. There is hope and hopelessness in the same event. In this autumn, the mingling of summer and winter, the contrast has become staunch and steadfast. Our facts evoke fiction. Probably they make sense. I am starkly reminded of Mirza Waheed's book - The Book of Gold Leaves at this time when life seems to mimic fiction. It is a return back to the 90s.

There may be some spoilers in the following paras.

The first direct connection with the book is of course the girl’s school being occupied by the army. The move is temporary and the army will vacate we are told. During the 90s when Srinagar was doomed to become a garrison, not just schools but also hotels and homes were occupied by the army. The Boulevard road, which is a major tourist hub, was lined with dirty hotels with broken window panes where armymen lived. Giant trucks were parked in the yards and underwear hung on the lines. The army had tucked itself into the very centre of the city’s spectacle. In the book, Waheed describes the school where the army moves in one day and the consequential parleys of the army commander with the school principal. The principal – authoritative, strong and yet worried; the armyman – vengeful, angry yet restrained (with her). 

The army never leaves. The girls stop coming to school.

Military occupation is incompatible with children’s education. For some time the school and the army try to  feign coexistence but when two armymen are caught peeping into the girl’s bathroom, the tempers flare up and the upright principal confronts the army major even though she is ultimately powerless.

This powerlessness has now seeped into the Kashmiri structure and, I dare say, the psyche. There are new structures and new ways to disarm the Kashmir struggle. Even the words which we chose to describe Kashmir seem to hold consequence in that what we see its result might be – an uprising, a revolt, crisis, unrest, or disturbance. What is it?

While the army has been on a killing spree, there emerges another parallel with the novel. Waheed talks about Zaal, a metaphorical vehicle which captures Kashmiris and kills them. The Zaal was the mechanisation of a lot parallel structures in Kashmir: the audacity with which the militarisation functions, its impunity, its secrecy and its sheer brutality. The Zaal has morphed into the pellet guns in the current scenario. Its open and indiscriminate use has already blinded more than a hundred kids since July 2016 and killed almost seventy as of this writing. Rayees, a 20 something ATM guard, was killed with 300 pellets when returning from his night duty – none of the internal organs in his body was found intact. In the 90s there were torture chambers functioning in Kashmir – where people would be brought in and interrogated – often killed, their bodies would sometimes be found later. Sometimes they were never found. Now, there are no prisoners taken. The victim of the pellet guns are mostly teenagers – school children and college goers.

And it is the youth again that evokes the most pitiable sentiments so deftly captured in the novel. Faiz is a young artist, barely literate, but decidedly talented. Roohi is the bold heroine of the novel. Both instinctively wait for the war to end. They speak of it as a phase, in which they must play their part and emerge victorious, because defeat is not an option youth entertains. In highly troubled ways, we are back to the same time. The past 45 days have been filled with rage and anger against an enemy which is hard to define. India is recognised by its might in Kashmir, of which it has plenty and keeps refurbishing. Any primate with a weapon can kill – it is not that difficult to follow the official lines in Kashmir. But is not easy to be on the other side – a collective victimisation of the population. Everyone is a part of it. The ones on the street, the ones at home. The siege makes everyone a captive. May be Faiz wont cross over the mountains this time, but he will die close to home.

And death has been swift to come in today’s Kashmir.

Saying that these are troubled times hardly holds much water or weight. There are no indicators as to where this trouble started brewing. We are retracing the lines of violence and systematic failure that brought us here and pursue us further. We are moving in circles of uncertain radii and the powers cascade differently each time. For the violence that erupted in Kupwara in April, the power largely vested with the Indian forces. Now, the Indian state has sent in its border security forces – war trained personnel – to fight amidst the civilian population. Is there a shuffle in the power cards? We will only know either too soon or too late – we know by experience, there are no moderates in Kashmir.

I will move back to the book. There is a moment when the commander of the forces in the school, Major Sumit Kumar, launches into a sort of a monologue about the enemy he faces – the Kashmiri people. His dilemma is to fight people he does not care about – is meeting for the first time and has no personal vendetta against. Given a chance he would perhaps let them be, or crush them permanently. Again there are no moderates. The same high handedness coupled with disdain is how the forces go about doing their daily work, fully assured that their actions will have no consequences for them. They may kill, maim or spare – there will be no questions asked. Hospitals have been raided, people beaten on the roads, a five year old had needles poked in his eyes – and there is a history that goes back to the 90s again.

Safe in this concoction of legal warps the Indian state seems to be clueless what to do with the morass it has created. Its ministers, civilians, journalists have come and gone and come again. The hospitals have become museums of repression.  There is perhaps no decency left. It is a dirty war in every sense of the word. Day in, day out we are bombarded with pictures of children with bloodied faces, eyes swollen shut. Half naked men with torture marks crisscrossing on their backs. In one picture, doctors were sewing up the penis of a man. There has to be some humanisation to this war. There has to be some humanity left somewhere, though it is hard to say where to find it. Kids as young as ten stop cars in Srinagar today demanding identification cards and checking of vehicles – much like Indian army men do. Is this a fight to be become the other? Certainly, it is difficult to find it in the other side which has been asking for more blood from the very beginning. India answers stones with pellet guns and there have been voices to use “real” guns.

Even after all this, there is the police to deal with. Inventories are maintained of the injured and their attendants at city hospitals. The police then questions them. If there is a parable in absurdity, it has to be this. Angry protesters are first shot at, and then arrested. In one case, the police went out on a limb and booked a man they had killed.


In his war novel, Utz, Bruce Chatwin comments “Tyranny sets up its own echo chamber; a void where confused signals buzz about at random; where a murmur or innuendo causes panic: so, in the end, the machinery of repression is more likely to vanish, not with the war or revolution, but with a puff, or the voice of falling leaves.”  There have been silent signs in Kashmir for long now. Every cycle of violence has made the people think – the insiders and the outsiders, us and them, have been clearer. More opaque. In this what the books like Waheed’s do is open up a door of expression to enable articulation of complex ideas – they show us how it is done. With every new song, every novel this idea of Kashmir gets a new voice and a new expression. Everyone cannot have the same way or words to communicate – the language we use defines us because it comes from within. In that the purpose of language is not just to express but to create. And in the smoke filled air of Kashmir, there is a silent army steadily creating the puff required to blow this oppression away. A lot is written about Kashmir now, a lot is heard. But it is the slower, subtler expression of grief that has emerged over the past few years. Its a sub plot in a long story. The graffiti on the walls of Kashmir is now so anarchic that the Indian forces have to paint them over. There are no memorials or museums to the civilian casualties of Kashmir, but artists have given voice to something more intrinsic in Kashmir – the fear or the experience of life under duress. 

Friday, 29 July 2016

Where Do We Go Now?


I am finding it hard to return to my blog every time with news this sad, this unbearable. So, I must get it off my chest.


A five year old kid has been blinded by India's CRPF in Kashmir "for abusing them". Now hold your arguments and let this sink in.

A five year old kid. Most 5 year olds I know are not able to speak properly. Language is still foreign at that age.

Blinded.

Blinded by inserting something sharp into his eye. Something like needles, steel pellets, or a bicycle spoke. Let that gore sink in.

You will not find too many lovers of India this side in the darkness.

I am sure some Indian media-wallah or walli will soon get you the righteous CRPF perspective on how justified this attack is.

At the risk of repeating myself I must say that India is a violent country that has no moral standing on Kashmir.

This depressing epiphany of Kashmir only ebbs and flows. I was talking to a friend and couldn't place it in the mind. What did these kids die for? The 50 killed in 2016 and the hundreds killed in 2010. This batch in our school of death. In the grand scheme of things, where do these kids - born at the wrong place, at the wrong time - fit? The enemy is still here, the weapons are the same, the excuses too. Where do we go from here?

Sometimes, I am reminded of a death in a village - somewhere in south or north of Kashmir and I cannot remember the name of the dead. He is just, I dare say, a shadow in my memory. I never knew him (or her) personally, and  was grieved by his death for some time and for a little longer by the  tragedy of Kashmir. But, I don't have to live with his death - Kashmir has to. And as a Kashmiri, he is now a painful stake in that part of my conscience. He is an entity who didn,t exist for me till he ceased to exist, and now we, as Kashmiris, must live in this dolour and add more fuel to the collective fire of our anger. I don't maintain a diary other than a few blogs here of the deaths in Kashmir, but knowing of the fine young men who died in the state's vendetta is an introduction I would rather not have. I don't even put a face to this recollection of death. I can't.

Kashmir brings out the best and worst in people. I've been shocked at the vitriol directed at the innocent dead. At the whole of the Kashmiri Muslim population. At me. At Asif, by extension, who just wants to earn money "to be happy" - and live in Kashmir to support his family. In a free Kashmir. But, there are others in India, and this time I am surprised by their numbers, who spoke up for Kashmir. For Kashmiris. For us. This is perhaps the best time for Indians to speak up against the actions of their nation in Kashmir. It is possible to be perfectly patriotic without having to be against that idea of another population's.

Oliver Goldsmith wrote a wonderful essay about loving your own country without hating others. I used to wonder if it is possible in the Indian context. Whether Indians can fathom Kashmir a separate entity without having to send their army to force an "integration"? But social media has shown me that it is possible. Ordinary Indians, not Arundhati Roys, have commented, come out in protests, shown solidarity - either with the idea of Independence or saving human lives in Kashmir. This to me is a start. Of course their number is small and insignificant, but it is the power of the idea that interests me. It is the acceptance of a people's right. It is a step for Indians to sympathize with Kashmir and look outside the twisted tales of their televisions. And listen to the ordinary Kashmiris, like Asif. Most (or many more) I am sure will be willing to move over the history and geography lessons of a standard high school and accept the new realities of Kashmir and its relation with India. A friendly divorce over a forced marriage. How many more Kashmiris to be blinded before Indians open their eyes?

I keep my ideals, because in spite of everything I still believe that people are really good at heart. - Anne Frank

Tuesday, 12 July 2016

To Save Ourselves

My thoughts are all over the place. And there is no coherence.

The aftermath of killing of Burhan Wani has been met with the usual Indian response to everything in Kashmir. When the government of India hanged Afzal Guru, this was exactly what Omar Abdullah’s government did. When the government banned beef and then RSS mob killed a Kashmiri trucker, same. When the Army killed two boys in Kupwara in April 2016, guess what the government did?

Now its been three days, we are still under curfew. And it is expected to go on for at least two more days. What is a curfew? It is the disquiet which is propagated as peace by India. It is the subjugation which goes silently in the night of oblivion. It is painful breathing in air of pepper gas and smoke – and despair.  India is a violent country that prefers to shut down an entire population with the might of its army to curry a sadistic nationalist pleasure. All over social media, people ‘celebrate’ the death of Kashmiris – not the ones who took up arms against the Indian nation, but the ordinary civilians. Lost faces in a crowd.

What kind of people celebrate the death of people they never met, never knew and whose existence does not impact them at all – for better or worse. But that is the whole Indian sentiment about Kashmir, isn’t it? Its forced appendage to the Indian nation is a matter of pride for some and statesmanship for others; no one is quite clear how its severance will impact them, if it does at all.

Meanwhile, we have curfew immediately following Eid. The markets haven’t opened since Eid, offices, schools, colleges, universities are all shut – and people are counting the dead. Every few hours there is a boy dead or blinded. Every time this happens there is some sort of announcement from the Indian establishment to use “restraint” and “nonlethal weapons/measures”. This jingoism was adopted in 2010 and has continued since – leading to pellet injuries which cause blindness and death. Most of the people, who are shot, are shot at above the waist. Failure looms large, but the establishment has been ignoring it.

The Indian media and journalists were quick to jump onto the news of Burhan being killed calling him anything from “a terrorist” to “pig”, some even calling for mass murder of all the people who attended his funeral. Clearly, we are on the other side of the Pir Panjal. There is no India here. In this valley, Kashmir is held hostage not just to herself but to the undefined conscience of a nation she seeks freedom from. After years of misrepresentation, we cannot rely on others to tell our stories. We cannot be spectators to our own stories. Nor wait for a significantly large number of people to die, before the world takes note.

Everything about Kashmir is problematic in India. If Kashmiris speak up for Kashmir, they are asked to leave and go to Pakistan (or anywhere else). This is symptomatic again of the Indian understanding – the people can leave; the land they can take. Again, reflected in their discomfort with Article 370 which grants special status of Kashmir, and is in most cases like this one is irrelevant. There is a callous disregard of Kashmiri lives. 120 killed in 2010, 30 so far in 2016. And that does not even include the people who have been killed in incidents during the six years. There is hardly a number – no one is certain.

When we talk of death on such regular basis it is easy to forget that they were people, like you, the reader and like me, the blogger. They had aspirations just like us – and most probably did not want to be shot dead. They too had families and lives going on. And this morbid talk is not made easy by the jargon used in the media. When the government spokespersons choose to address the media – and surprisingly when the police head spoke to the media – they all lament “loss of lives”, “incidents”. No one in the establishment says that police/CRPF killed the unarmed protestors. This narration is slowly morphed into the even gentler “30 33 people died in the protests” – holding the perpetrators blameless, not even mentioning the killers, reducing the guilt.

Of course, the media has other tricks too. Like the victim blaming – they were shot because they were protesting, and the whole discussion in the public psyche dissolves into whether the protest was warranted or not. Why were they doing it? Who made them do it? They want to disturb peace? Why hold such a large funeral? This was best displayed in April when Nayeem and Iqbal were killed by the CRPF: there was an immediate attempt to discredit Nayeem by calling him names (a stone pelter, mobster etc.) Again, veering off from the crime of the armed forces of shooting unarmed civilians. This time too, the focus is hardly the attacks on hospitals and unarmed civilians – but how to quell the ugly situation that has come to be in Kashmir. Face saving. Of course, people like to question the basis of protests too – why are they angry or sad over the death of Burhan in the first place – they just do not want to listen to the answers. The answers don’t sit well with the Indian nationalism – they don’t want to hear that Burhan is hailed as hero in Kashmir or that even though they may not follow in his footsteps they won’t diminish his bravado and image. The background story why Burhan became a militant in the first place is not an uncommon story in Kashmir.

Quoting from Shuddhabrata Sengupta’s article for Kafila: Kashmir Burns, Again (https://kafila.org/2016/07/11/kashmir-burns-again/)

“In October 2010, Burhan Wani, then sixteen years old, was on a motorcycle, with his brother Khalid Wani, and a friend. They were out on a bike ride, through Tral, the area that they had grown up in, as teenage boys do, anywhere. They were stopped at a Special Operations Group Picket of the Jammu and Kashmir Police and ordered to get cigarettes for the troopers. Khalid went and got the cigarettes, Burhan and the friend waited. After the transaction, for no apparent reason, the troopers pounced on the boys, beat them up severely, damaged the bike, which had been Khalid’s pride and joy. Khalid lost consciousness. But perhaps it was Burhan who suffered the greatest injury, and that injury, an invisible one, was what any self respecting young person with a sense of dignity might feel when beaten for no reason other than the fact that he is there to be beaten.
It is possible that Burhan the teenager died that day when his brother’s motorcycle was stopped so casually, so callously. It is possible that Burhan the ‘militant’, who grew to be ‘militant commander’ was born that very same day.

Within a few weeks Burhan disappeared into the mists of the forests of South Kashmir. He emanated, over the years, in the form of videos shared over social media, playing cricket, listening to songs through his headphones by a campfire, posing, like a slightly silly macho young man with guns that he should never have had to feel the need for, that were thrust on him by the fact that ‘men with guns’ is the most important face of itself that the Indian state shows to Kashmiris. The militancy that is generated is the mirror of the occupation’s protocols. Armed men beget armed men. Commander Burhan Wani was produced and destroyed by the Indian state, which made it impossible for a young, intelligent, charismatic man like Burhan to salvage his dignity by any means other than that of being an armed combatant.”

The spurge in street protests against India have made this conflict a very individual thing. With continuous blockades in many areas of the city, curfews and crackdowns in villages, every person in one way or the other is a direct victim. There is no escape. The increase in protests, as much as India would like to blame Pakistan for it, is a sign that  too many deaths in the neighbourhoods have emboldened the people rather than deter them – sharpening the hatred like a tack. And the discourse in India does not help. It’s not like India does not want to seen as doing things. After rushing more troops to Kashmir, for some odd reason the Indian Home Ministry called a meeting of mullahs in Delhi to discuss the Kashmir unrest, and the Indian PM chaired a meeting of which the Kashmiri CM was not a part. It does a lot, just not the right things.

Days like today are rare. There was no news of fresh casualties, no news of clashes. In the interim and unrelenting curfew, people have come forth to help others establishing langars and volunteering in hospitals. These are not the things the Indian media would like to talk about. But we must. The biggest residue in a curfew is the despair it leaves behind in the debris of the failing society. What next? Everyone seems to ask. There are no answers. We will open our shops and schools till untimely death come knocking again or India decides to poke the fire. Till curfew is announced again, and the public beaten and battered locked inside homes. There is no giving up. That’s why we must talk more about the small battles won. To keep the hope alive. To save ourselves.